Court Orders Police to Compensate Ethiopian Israeli Wrongfully Detained Over 'Color of His Skin'

The police ordered to pay young man 20,000 shekels and legal fees in connection with incident that took place in 2018 when the young man was 15 years old

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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An Ethiopian-Israeli protest in Kiryat Haim in June. For illustration purposes only
An Ethiopian-Israeli protest in Kiryat Haim in June. For illustration purposes onlyCredit: Rami Shllush
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

The Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court ordered the police to compensate an Israeli man of Ethiopian descent who was wrongfully detained and searched when he was a minor, finding that there was "no escaping the conclusion" that the actions taken against him were driven only by his ethnicity.

The police were ordered to pay the young man 20,000 shekels and legal fees in connection with an incident that took place in 2018 when the young man was 15 years old.

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As he recounted in his affidavit, while en route to the gym, a plainclothes officer confronted him, took him underneath a residential building where he proceeded to frisk the then-minor and asked him to empty his pockets.

"I was terribly scared but he left me no choice," he wrote. When it was over, he collected his belongings from the floor, left and told his family. As proof of this, he submitted as evidence a message he had written to his family in which he told them about the incident, as well as his brother's call to the police in real-time immediately thereafter.

The police claimed it had no documentation of the incident. In his decision, the judge wrote he found the man's testimony to be credible and the police's lack of documentation to be quite grave.

"It is unreasonable that a 15.5-year-old minor was detained by a police officer or detective and that a search of his body and belongings was conducted without this being documented in an action report," he wrote.

"There is no escaping the conclusion that the actions were taken only by virtue of the plaintiff's Ethiopian origin and his being branded as a potential criminal only because of the color of his skin," the judge wrote, "in the absence of any documentation in the hands of the defendant, and in the absence of any explanation for this severe conduct towards the plaintiff."

An Ethiopian-Israeli protest in Kiryat Haim in June. For illustration purposes onlyCredit: Rami Shllush

In his decision, the judge also related to the claims made regarding excessive policing against Ethiopian Israelis, writing "In light of the young man's claims of excessive policing against members of the Ethiopian community, the police have an increased duty of care when taking police measures against members of the community."

The young man sought 50,000 shekels in compensation for the incidents that occurred in 2018 and 2019. He was represented by attorneys Anne Suciu and Avner Pinchuk from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

In his affidavit, the young man said that since he was detained by the undercover detective, he has made concerted efforts not to leave home in the evening by himself in his neighborhood, to only walk down busy streets with lots of people and to avoid going out in the evening with friends to restaurants or other places of entertainment. 

“Every time I see the police I’m stressed and look to enter a store so I won’t just be outside for no reason in case the police see me,” he wrote. His brother told the court that one evening a patrol car passed through the neighborhood and even though he was in his house, he had an anxiety attack just from the noise. “He has no trust in the police and is very worried about running into police officers, even though he has no reason to be afraid.”

In his lawsuit, the young man also recounted two other incidents in which he was stopped and questioned by police officers for no apparent reason when he was a minor.

In August 2015, when he was 13-years-old, he was stopped and questioned by police officers when he left a neighborhood grocery store with a bag in his hand. The police officers questioned him about what was in the bag, where he got his watch and chain from, and asked him what he was doing in the neighborhood. He said he told the officers that he had chocolate milk and a roll in the bag.

Prosecutors said that because of the limited details about the incident, it can't be examined further. The judge accepted the young man's version of the events, but also accepted the police’s claim that there was insufficient information to examine.

Finding that the incident was not part of the lawsuit itself but rather part of the background component, the judge did not rule in favor of compensating the plaintiff.

The third incident took place in 2019 when the plaintiff was 16.5-years-old, waiting to meet up with a friend next to his house so they could go to the library and work on their homework together when a police car drove by. The officers asked the plaintiff what he was doing there and only when his friend arrived did the police leave him alone. This was a routine patrol, said the representative of the State Prosecutor’s Office, and the police questioned them because they suspected the two may have been engaged as lookouts for a group of burglars, so they questioned them.

The representative asserted that this was not a case of racism because he was with a white friend and because the police approached both of them. The judge ruled that he did not find any flaw in the police officers’ conduct in this incident.

The State Prosecutor’s Office said: "The court rejected most of the lawsuit's claims in light of all the evidence and testimony presented to it. Regarding the incident for which the plaintiff was compensated, despite a thorough investigation by the police, no documentation was found to confirm its occurrence. In the coming days we will study the decision in depth and consider our steps."

Attorney Suciu from ACRI said: “The ruling is an important step in eradicating the police's racial profiling activities. Excessive policing against minorities produces long-term damage to the lives of those young people who are repeatedly labeled as criminals. The police should learn lessons from this case and work to eradicate the profiling phenomenon."

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